What Dan Rather and the Carter Center Need to Learn By Carroll Andrew Morse
Tech Central Station
Last week, independent analysis cast doubt on claims made by two prestigious information-gathering organizations. One incident you are probably familiar with. The community of bloggers presented credible evidence that documents used by CBS to support a news story about President Bush's national guard service were forgeries. The second instance, though potentially as important, received far less attention, at least in the English language media. Professors Roberto Rigobon of MIT and Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University presented credible evidence that the results of the Venezuelan recall election, declared clean by the Carter Center, had been systematically altered.
Initial commentary on the CBS story has focused on the blogosphere versus big-media. An even wider underlying dynamic becomes apparent when the Bush documents and the Venezuelan recall are considered together. The story is not just about the output of bloggers; it is about the inputs that analysts are able to utilize. The analysis of Charles Johnson that cast doubt on the authenticity of the Bush documents was made possible by the existence of pdf-format document sharing. Professors Rigobon and Hausmann analyzed election returns at the polling center and machine levels. They compared the returns to results from exit polls and the signature gathering phase of the referendum, and found effects not consistent with a fair election. Their timely analysis was possible because of the Internet's ability to transfer large, quantitative data sets.
Until the Internet was established, the dissemination of primary information usually involved paper and ink -- commodities that cost money. It was economically impossible to provide everyone with every detail of every story. Editors were charged with making a trade-off. They had to decide which details were important enough to fit into the limited space they were allocated. Not all of the information could make the cut. In the Internet age, economic justifications for not releasing as much detail as possible are weaker. Very little production cost is involved is releasing primary source information in electronic format.
Given access to primary information, people like Rigobon, Hausmann and Johnson began to ask some detailed questions. They tried starting a conversation, not just in the blogosphere, but in a wider civicsphere -- a place where people can come together and share information and ideas, using any media format available. Unfortunately, big media and elite NGOs are not used to holding conversations. They had become too used to giving lectures instead. The Carter Center, attempting to declare any questions about the recall closed after a single, controversial audit, tried to stop the conservation before it started. CBS basically told the bloggers to shut up and go away.
Somewhere along the line, the elite gatherers of information had forgotten that their rationale for providing partial information was a practical one -- the limits related to the costs of publishing. They forgot that the ideal was giving out as much information as possible. They moved from an inability to report in maximal detail to an unwillingness to report in maximal detail.
CBS has set itself up for special scorn in this matter. The blogosphere's complaint is not just that they may be pursuing an anti-Bush agenda, the complaint is that they have abandoned basic reporting -- the core function of their organization -- in an attempt to manipulate the agenda. Reasonable and answerable questions, including provenance of the documents, the precise qualifications of their experts, and the criteria used to establish authenticity have gone unreported, have been sluggishly reported, or have been sloppily reported and debunked in just a few hours.
Ultimately, CBS fundamentally altered the nature of the editorial trade-off. Instead grudgingly adjusting the level of reported detail out of economic necessity, they willingly sacrificed the quality of their reporting in their attempt to manipulate the agenda.
Though not as egregious, the Carter Center also abandoned parts of its core mission -- carefully observing electoral processes -- in order to jump to a conclusion that the election was clean. Among other problems, Carter Center reports revealed gaps in their observation of ballot boxes for at least two days following the election, gaps that allow the possibility of fraud. This information was not mentioned in their most public declaration that the election was fair. How could an organization whose primary mission is electoral observation not include a mention of problems with the direct observation of ballot boxes in their highest-level analysis?
The deficiencies exhibited by CBS and the Carter Center are problematic not only for big media and elite NGOs. Left unaddressed, they are problems that will eventually feed back into the blogosphere. The rise of the blogosphere has been predicated on the existence of a reliable, common base of information that people can discuss -- a base of information that full-timers are still in the best position to provide. The blogosphere is most robust when it can draw upon the resources of media organizations with global reach that honestly vet sources and conduct comprehensive follow-up reporting. It depends on the boots on the ground that a Carter Center can provide to monitor elections in faraway lands. Without the work of an organization like the Carter Center, there might not be detailed election data from Venezuela to examine in the first place.
Fortunately, there is no reason the older information-gathering institutions cannot coexist with the blogosphere, if the older institutions are willing to relinquish their unfounded claims of exclusive ownership of particular phases of the information cycle. As data-dissemination technology continues to improve, more and more individuals outside of the ranks of professional journalists and full-time policy wonks will be able to contribute world-class expertise to the realm of analysis. The older institutions must not let institutional jealousies related to their loss of primacy with respect to analysis derail them from their core mission of accurate reporting. This kind of jealousy seems to have played a role in CBS's poor follow-up to questions about the Bush documents.
Likewise, the older institutions must also be willing to share the role of setting the public agenda. Good agendas come from efforts to answer good questions. The interplay within the blogosphere and between the blogosphere and more established information sources is an excellent mechanism for defining and refining issues. While the people of a country like Venezuela are asking reasonable, data-driven questions about their election, an organization like the Carter Center should not be telling them to move on unless they can provide complete answers to such questions.
The established institutions -- big media and elite NGOs -- can maintain their relevance if they accept that they are no longer the undisputed last word in our civic conversations. Whether they accept this or not, the need for solid and accurate reporting will continue to exist. The most successful information-gathering organizations will be those willing to take on a core mission of disseminating as much accurate, primary information as far as they can as fast as they can. The combination of blogosphere analysis and full-time reporting will enhance the quality and quantity of information that everyone receives, and that is a positive development for everyone.
The author is a TCS contributor.